In football, Beckenbauer was the perfect 'libero'

Originally a midfielder, Beckenbauer dropped into defence at his peak, as coaches sought to utilise his unmatched organisational capacity at the back.

Franz Beckenbauer, holds up the trophy after West Germany defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich.   -  AP

Centre backs can be broadly classified into two kinds. Nemanja Vidic typifies the first, brawny and fearless to the point of foolhardiness, forever hurling himself into challenges or rising above oceans of bodies to send defensive headers 50 yards down the pitch. Someone in the mould of Alessandro Nesta, however, would disdain muddying his shorts or bruising his nose in such unseemly manner, and use his tactical nous to minimise the need for throwing himself about, stepping in front of forwards to make interceptions or outpacing them in pursuit of searching balls into the channels.

Franz Beckenbauer took this latter style into its logical extreme. Originally a midfielder, Beckenbauer dropped into defence at his peak, as coaches sought to utilise his unmatched reading of the game in an organisational capacity at the back. Occupying the same space on the pitch a sweeper would, he began to essay a role hitherto unseen in football — that of the libero.

Read: Johan Cruyff, the 'Pythagoras in boots'

When the other team had the ball, Beckenbauer plugged gaps in the back-line, and stepped into midfield when his team took possession, becoming the team's playmaker, spraying passes about, revelling in the space he commanded as the 'spare man'.

Beckenbauer's first two World Cups ended in near-misses for West Germany, losing to England in extra-time in the 1966 final and losing 3-4 to Italy (in extra time again) in a pulsating semi-final in '70. He played a prominent role in both tournaments; scoring four times from midfield in '66 and providing the '70 edition one of its defining images, striding around the Estadio Azteca with one arm in a sling in the semi-final.


In 1974, on home soil, West Germany started as favourite, especially after its European Championship title two years back. With a format designed to iron out the effect of upsets (the second round consisted of two round-robin groups, the toppers of which would make the final), it was no surprise that Beckenbauer found himself in his second final, facing his rival to the title of world's best footballer — Holland's Johann Cruyff. Comparing a forward to a defender is meaningless, and both played influential roles in the game (Cruyff set things up by winning a penalty after just a minute of play), but the Germans' 2-1 comeback triumph displayed one facet of the game where Beckenbauer trumped the iconoclastic Cruyff — his calm leadership which contrasted with the Dutchman's constant bickering to the referee once his side's lead had disappeared.

Gallery of Greats: Sportstar series on World Cup heroes

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :